I burst (sort of) through the trees, up over one last little rise and stumbled upon the aid station and road crossing. Before bothering to find out how many hours, minutes (days?) had passed since I'd left the starting line, I looked, left, right, left again for Taylor to offer an apology and then send him off on the second leg of our 50K relay. Not seeing him or Tim (our third runner), I swung back to the friendly faces of the aid station to ask about the clock. The good and shocking news was that it was only 10:36 which not only erased my need to apologize but actually put me way ahead of the pace I'd realistically hoped to achieve before the race began at 8:00 AM. The bad news? Another look left, right, left confirmed that reinforcements were nowhere to be found.
The afternoon prior, Tim, Taylor and I piled into our packed vehicle and left Manheim for Ohiopyle to take part in the Laurel Highlands Ultra. The Ultra is steeped in tradition and is one of the toughest 70+ mile events in the Northeast. In the past several years, a 70-mile team relay and 50K event have also been added to the festivities. This year a 50K team relay had been added, opening the door for participation by mere mortals and serving as the siren call we'd decided to answer.
Relying on Youghiogheny paddling memories, I knew that there was a budget-friendly spot to crash and pitch tents in Confluence, leaving us just a 20-minute drive in the morning to check-in, grab our race numbers and receive final instructions.
Though I did recall that the "campground" was positioned right next to railroad tracks, I didn't recall trains running past the site repeatedly throughout the night. Chalk up that minor (but significant) memory lapse to the deep slumber brought on by post-paddling drinking binges. Long story short, we didn't get too restful a night's sleep and I knew all too well who's shoulders were going to be carrying the blame if that made race day miserable.
Despite the restless night, spirits were high as we steered into the parking lot in Ohiopyle. There'd been some individual rough patches and shakings of confidence leading up to the weekend, but that all seemed to be past tense amidst the hustle and bustle of race day. As the first man up, I was definitely ready to see if my training and preparation had paid off. I hadn't been on the trail itself, but having frequently pored over the 11+ mile first leg's elevation profile, I knew I was looking at some serious uphill and downhill work.
Because the individual 50K and team relay participants were all starting together, I'd decided to position near the front of the pack in hopes that I could pace with the fleeter-footed individual racers who had to conserve a bit to eventually cover far more ground than me. This plan worked nicely as it helped avoid any log jamming at the early changeover to stone steps as the climb was underway. Surely there were leaders who were long gone, but four or five of us stayed tightly grouped for the first 3-5 miles, alternating between hard running and swift hiking. The gain was intimidating but I'm sure the others were just as aware as I was (maybe more so) of the massive climb to come a few miles later. I really, really enjoyed that first stretch, especially the extremely quick, technical downhills.
Somewhere between miles 7 and 8, however, I was feeling the pain and wondering if the incline would ever end. Switchbacks were non-existent and the humidity had increased dramatically. I'd lost touch with my pack and was alone with my flagging willpower.
Finally topping out after mile 8, I found myself doubled-over. Not only was the course eating my lunch, it had coaxed breakfast back out into the open air. Note to self: do not substitute your normal morning coffee with a milk-based caffeinated drink and then attempt to tackle a demanding trail run. My stomach actually hadn't bothered me until that very moment and, if anything, I felt slightly rejuvenated after the expulsion was over.
I picked my feet back up and got back to work. The final 3 miles of my leg was mostly flat with little climb and a fair bit of sustained, gentle downhill, but still my pace had diminished considerably from those earliest miles and I did alternate between running and hiking. As I neared the 11 mile marker, I was nursing leg cramps and looking forward to handing off the figurative baton.
No member of our team had ever attempted an event of this magnitude before. I've finished a 50K but it paled in comparison to the demands of the terrain, elevation change, heat and humidity offered up by the Laurel Highlands. Tim has finished half marathons, but, again, those events were of a different variety. We'd timidly speculated on the times we hoped to achieve, but knew we were to untested to really be sure. I'd freely admitted that any strategic errors on my part could add a crushing amount of minutes to my time.
So, there I stood without anyone to "tag in" thinking that I'd inspired so little confidence that Tim and Taylor didn't even see any reason to be at the transfer with only a little over 2 and a half hours gone. At first I was frustrated, but as the moments passed I grew pretty certain that something else was going on. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that I'd tossed my cellphone into my hydration pack. I turned it on and was surprised to find that I had one small but stubborn bar available with which to make a phone call.
"Taylor, where are you?"
"We're at the first aid station."
"No, I'm at the first aid station."
Turns out they were at the first aid station...for the 70-mile. It also turns out that while that station was 8 trail miles removed, it was also somewhere in the vicinity of 50 minutes of rural driving away from where I stood waiting.
I didn't remain standing long, however, as both of my calves and my left thigh were suffering debilitating cramps. I was blessed enough to have a ridiculously kind wife-of-another-runner/physical therapist attend to my agony. I bestow the title of angel on few and do so only in silence, but the word was echoing away in my head as I lay on my back trying not to retrigger any spasms.
Team Backcountry Edge will return to the office on Monday without a trophy (as expected), but I suspect we'll each be able to hold our head high and wonder what might have been. With any luck, it'll motivate us to try again next year. Unless I can talk myself into trying the whole damn thing.
Postscript: Sunday morning brought with it temperatures in the upper 80's and mind-altering humidity. While we truly did have less than ideal conditions yesterday, we dodged a serious bullet in not having race day fall today. Funny how everything really is relative.